The think tank hub: a new model for supporting think tanks

21 February 2012

I would like to propose a new model for funding and supporting new think tanks in developing countries: the think tank hub. In developing this model I have been inspired by a number of ideas and experiences.

Think nets

I have written about think nets in the past. Stephen Yeo presented the idea on a paper about the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). He then co-authored an article with me on think nets as an alternative model for think tanks. The basic idea of a think net is that a small central secretariat can coordinate the activities of researchers based in other organisations within a country or across boarders. To work, the think net must have its own agency and its researchers must support it. This is not the same as a research network.

Unlike a more traditional think tank, think nets are much better at simultaneously accessing and managing a number of policy spaces but not as good in rallying around a single issue and mobilising as a unit. Interestingly, I have found this model at work in several think tanks that may not present themselves as such but, in practice, could be described as think nets.

The Hub

The Hub is a global initiative that provides spaces for entrepreneurs to develop their ideas and enterprises in a flexible and supportive environment. The idea is simple. An open office space that allows individuals and teams to join by the hour or via monthly or annual contracts. But space is only half the story. The Hub also offers other services. Besides the more obvious spaces for meeting and events, access to the internet, and basic support services, it also provides more elaborate support such as links to angel investors, business incubators and accelerators, networking opportunities, etc.

I had thought about an alternative model for supporting think tanks before. I had called the idea a ‘pop-up think tank’. The pop-up think tank was a virtual service based on digital communications. The service would offer all a virtual think tank would need: intranet, internet, digital communications strategies, etc. All that one would need would be an idea, some money to fund it, and the willingness to see it through. The service would offer administrative, communications, and strategic support. I think a new think tank, a New Think Tank, might be going in that direction.

Barriers to entry

Then I have also been concerned by the fact that the up-front costs of setting up think tanks in developing countries seem to be rather high. And donors are not always willing to take risks with young researchers or small organisations. As a consequence, most funds go to the same few organisations and the popular names. This reduces the space for debate and limits the marketplace or community of ideas.

This is a shame because I know of many young and competent researchers who are keen to join the policy research world but find it difficult to; they feel that the only way in is to join existing think tanks or NGOs from which they may then move to research or analysis roles -but this rarely materialises.

The new model: The think tank hub

What if donors were to fund policy research or think tank hubs rather than just established think tanks directly? A think tank hub could be a large office or house, not dissimilar to those hired or owned by individual think tanks, but that could be used by several organisations and initiatives at a time. I have been to a few paces that would be perfect for this. The hub would provide all the basic services needed by any small think tank or policy research initiative: wi-fi, working spaces, rooms for meetings and events, general administrative support, an electronic library, possibly an intranet, etc. It could also offer more elaborate support in the form of a professional communications team, senior research advisers (for instance resident economists, sociologists, health experts, etc.), seed funding for and incubation for the best ideas, training, etc.

The think tank hub could also promote its members’ work via multiple channels (which are often too costly or elaborate for a single initiative to take on), seek support on their behalf, network with others, etc. As a consequence the members would face rather low entry costs into the world of policy research: all the setting-up costs would have been taken care of; and most of the non-research activities would be provided by professionals leaving researchers free to focus on and to seek funding and support for their ideas, research, and direct policy engagement.

To join, the think tank hub could establish a clear set of criteria that emphasises quality (it could also focus on innovation) and policy focus (but not necessarily immediate impact). Membership would ideally be sufficiently diverse to generate cross-polination between disciplines, ideologies, spaces, etc. Members would be expected to present clear ideas of what they propose to do and how they may take advantage of the support that the hub could provide. This is, by the way, not dissimilar to many post-grad application demands so in fact this may be a great place for many young graduates to return to once they are done with their PhDs or Masters abroad. What better than to come home with the chance to reflect on what has been learned and use those new ideas in a new venture?

Funders could pool their funding to cover some or all the costs of the hub and offer seed funds for its members. In fact, supported by the think tank hub, they would be able to identify promising projects that they may wish to continue funding and supporting independently.

The same model could be used to support social enterprises, new charities, etc. -but maybe someone else can blog about it.

I want to develop this idea over the next few months. Hopefully there will be a funder interested in giving it a go. If you have any comments, please do get in touch.